History as an information weapon in Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine
Historical manipulation, along with ideology, has always been an important tool used by the Kremlin to legitimise its actions in the eyes of its own citizens. However, due to the widespread and largely unrestricted access to information, its impact on external audiences allows for a division of opponents and the mobilisation of supporters worldwide. Thus disinformation, an integral part of modern warfare, extends far beyond the front line and the domestic media ecosystem.
Russia’s information manipulation apparatus attempts to poison the information space by distorting history and creating an alternative reality. By reshaping the perception of historical background in a way that is favourable to its interests, Russia ensures that the consumers of its historical revisionism align their views and decisions with the Kremlin.
Historical policy as a tool of social influence
Throughout the centuries, rulers have sought to shape the collective consciousness. History, usually written by the victors, has always served as an arena to support political and military goals. Such activities should not be associated solely with the past.
Russia’s policy to revise and rewrite its past is centuries old. Russian tsars pursued such a policy, often claiming that a great empire could not be created without a great past. As a result, Russia has appropriated the historical and cultural heritage of other nations spanning several generations.
A good example of instrumentalising history in such a way is the order (ukaz) of Tsar Peter I in 1701, which ordered the destruction of all written folk artifacts, chronicles, ancient historical records, church documents, and archives among conquered peoples. The removal of earlier versions of history was only the first step. The Tsar also commissioned writers and professional historians from Europe to rewrite history. The Muscovites then used this manipulation of collective memory and the perception of history to proclaim themselves as the Russian Empire on 22 October 1721. Henceforth, the residents of Muskovia began to be called ‘Russians’, thereby appropriating the historical name ‘Rus’ from the Kievan Rus.
Another example is the involvement of Empress Catherine II in modifying historical sources and restricting access to primary documents. The Empress also did not hesitate to write new chapters of history, reinforcing the versions of historical truth crafted by her predecessors. The ‘annexation’ of the Crimean Peninsula through the Manifesto of 1783 signed by Catherine the Great laid the foundation for the myth of the peninsula being ‘original Russian territory’ in the 20th century. Today, Russian propaganda justifies the conquest of foreign territories as an alleged ‘return’ of its own lands. However, it is misleading to speak of the annexation of Crimea (in 1783 as well as in 2014) as a voluntary or peaceful accession.
Ivan the Terrible, often seen as the creator of the official mythology of the Russian Empire, also did not shy away from distorting history. The central statement of this mythology claimed that the Kievan Rus was the cradle of three fraternal nations: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and that Russians, as the ‘older brother,’ had the right to inherit the territory.
These examples indicate a long-term and consistently pursued Russian policy of revising and rewriting history as a tool of manipulation and influence with considerable social impact. The multi-generational process of distorting the history of the Russian Empire has resulted in an unquestioning acceptance of Russia’s alleged right to inherit the history, culture, and traditions of Kievan Rus.
The contemporary application of Russian historical revisionism concerning Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin, following in the footsteps of past Russian tsars, has also decided to leave his mark on the revision of history. In 2013, he announced the idea of creating a unified line of history textbooks for secondary schools. The fundamental intention behind this particular reform was to consolidate the idea of a Russian identity and eliminate any notions of other national or ethnic identities. The presentation of historical events that still generate controversy is an important element in the development of these textbooks.
An example is the history of the Novorossiya Governorate, which was established by Catherine II in southern Ukraine and included territories annexed by the Russian Empire from the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the Hetman state, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Empire. The textbooks also include content related to the founding myth of Russia that continues to spark disputes between Moscow and Kyiv. The textbooks refer to the Orange Revolution and the annexation of Crimea, which are both, although in different ways, seen as further attempts to isolate Russia from its closest neighbours, with the involvement of the United States, the European Union, and NATO.
These efforts demonstrate the continuation of historical revisionism. Both older and recent history is rewritten and manipulated to support the currently adopted policy narrative. Misleading present and future generations could both legitimise this narrative and create a skewed future assessment of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, among other consequences.
Russia’s long-standing policy of revising history, as outlined above , is now focussed on spreading the false narrative that Ukraine is an artificial political entity whose natural, historically accurate place is within ‘Mother Russia’. However, the resurgence of Nazism at the top of the Ukrainian government, this narrative alleges, has led to the oppression of people identifying with this Russian vision of history and Ukraine is being forced to assimilate into the culturally as well as religiously different West.
It should be emphasised that maintaining the image of an anti-fascist state is one of the cornerstones of Russian identity. Thanks to this historical parallel, the struggle against Ukraine is presented as a continuation of the mission of the fathers and grandfathers against the Nazi scourge, representing an existential struggle against absolute evil. This myth created during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is still used today.
Russia’s attempts to influence public opinion through revising and rewriting history during the ongoing war in Ukraine encompass a relatively broad and diverse spectrum of activities in both the domestic and international environments. These activities continue to be one of the fundamental tools of informational-psychological operations in the arsenal of Russian propagandists.
Engaging in historical revisionism and spreading manipulative content online adds an additional challenge to the preservation of historical accuracy. Digital media can serve as a collective ‘diary’ written by many authors and is thus more susceptible to malicious or purposefully manipulative narratives. The consequence is a saturation of the information and cognitive space with misperceptions of reality, which can ultimately lead to alterations in ‘collective memory’ and a revision of the perception of history and its impact on contemporary events.